He spent two recordings (Outside and Earthling) trying to cop Trent Reznor's moves, which sounded as foolish as it looked. The Man Who Fell to Earth landed with a giant thud, proving once and for all that chameleons do indeed age with the gracelessness of regular folks. (And that's forgiving him Tin Machine, which is a real act of charity...or pity.) Fitting, then, that David Bowie would "return to roots," as he keeps insisting. Time to start over.
If this isn't Hunky Dory, then it's not far from Scary Monsters -- neither of which is as interesting as Changesonebowie or Changestwobowie, the latter two proving beyond any doubt how much of a singles artist the concept auteur really was. Still, better the acoustic and melancholy Bowie than the let's-twitch Bowie, who, since 1983, has sounded like a 63-year-old washed-up Broadway actor faking arena-disco. But this being Bowie, "Hours..." is still a concept album -- in this case, the soundtrack to a French video role-playing game titled Omikron the Nomad Soul. Only this time around, the conceit never gets in the way of the result, which is the best thing you can say about this disc; at least there are no songs about aliens and earthlings and 21st-century art detectives lurking around every corner.
Actually, this is Bowie's most human-sounding record in years -- warm where Outside was frigid, emotional where Earthling was sterile. Problem is, "Hours..." also sounds as though it were recorded in 1985 -- for God's sakes, all those groaning-moaning synths and backup gospel-pop vocals and snap-crackle-pop electric guitars and strumming-humming acoustic ones. Come back, Nile Rodgers, all is forgiven. Let's dance? This record barely crawls.
Like his old pal Iggy Pop, Bowie's "rock" has reached a midlife crisis; it doesn't know whether to play it soft ("Survive," "Seven") or hard (the laughable arena excursion "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell," which could have been a Tin Machine outtake). Introspection doesn't suit a man who has spent his entire professional career hiding behind masks; neither do the words "I love you," which pop up here and there like punch lines. The only difference is, Iggy's brand-new Avenue B is bust-a-gut laughable, where Bowie's shtick is just a groaner. "All of my life I tried so hard / Doing my best with what I have / Nothing much happened all the same" -- and that's for starters. It's all downhill from there. Ziggy goes VH1 -- the only time Bowie looks ahead is to make sure his walker doesn't get stuck in the pavement.